Artist Date 5.2: A Rabbi Like Me

 

According to my friend Deb, one of the first things I ever told her was I wanted to be a rabbi.

I have no recollection of this conversation. However, I do not doubt it as this idea has danced around and inside of me for some time.

I’m not exactly sure where or when it took root. Best I can surmise is some time between my post-college, rabbi-to-be lover and coffee with Deb circa 2007.

Most everyone I have mentioned this to over the years thinks it an obvious next step. Perhaps, most especially, Rabbi Brant Rosen.

“In some ways, you kind of already are (a rabbi),” he told me during one of our monthly meetings.

And yet, each time I seem to be moving toward it … I step away.

Most notably, when my then-husband asked me for a divorce in 2012.

No longer did I have to consider his career path. The four years of medical school and four years of residency that had just earned him a lucrative job offer in Seattle. That rabbinical school was in Philadelphia. Or New York. Los Angeles or Boston.

Only that, suddenly I could go.

I bought Hebrew workbooks. Interviewed recent graduates. Secured the domain name “A Wandering Jewess.”

I availed myself of help offered by spiritual leaders in both Seattle and Chicago.

And yet, not long after my divorce was final, the desire fell away.

I didn’t want to cloister myself away studying ancient Aramaic for five years, I said. I took issue with the schools’ policy of not admitting seminary students with non-Jewish partners. Even though I didn’t even have a partner. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has since revoked that policy.)

I wondered about my aptitude for learning Hebrew. Was unclear about what I would do with my ordination. And feared, as a rabbi, I would never find romantic love again.

“Who will I meet?” I asked my rabbi, in earnest. “Another rabbi,” he replied. I wasn’t sure I wanted that either.

So I returned to writing — following a 15-year hiatus — instead. I pursued other work. Fulfilled a life-long dream of living in Europe. (And dove head-first into a delicious three-month romance with a delightful not-Jewish man before leaving the country.)

I applied to the School of Divinity at Yale University.

Anything but re-open my consideration of rabbinical school.

Until recently.

I’ve heard my own voice whisper in possibility, in surrender. Words like “Maybe” and “Really? OK …” But have said little. Until Friday, Artist Date 5.2 (or 121, depending on how you count.)

I ride the number 80 bus to the number 47 and walk about 10 blocks – arriving just a few minutes before Shabbat services at Tzedek Chicago, a new congregation founded by Rabbi Rosen while I was living in Madrid. The congregation is (somewhat ironically) meeting a couple of streets over from the home my ex-husband and I once owned.

There is music and poetry, prayer and politics. Many familiar faces. Many not – like Leah, who plays the guitar and sings. I am reminded of Passover seders and other holiday gatherings … watching Jews sing with unabashed joy, Jews who not only embrace but roll around in their faith as if it were a cashmere blanket.

I am not this kind of Jew. And up until now, I have seen this as proof that I am not “rabbi material.”

Up until now.

I hitch a ride home from services with my friend Elaine. A young woman from Kalamazoo is in the back seat. She has come to Chicago for the weekend, her 22nd birthday, to attend services at Tzedek Chicago.

Her father is Jewish, her mother – Chinese … and she is all Jew. Like me, a Jew (at least to some) who converted to Judaism. But unlike me – an adoptee raised by a Jewish family but not born into one – has only recently claimed this faith as her own.

She plans to apply to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this fall. And she has spent a summer at Middlebury College learning Hebrew – signing a statement agreeing not to read, write, speak or listen to a language other than Hebrew during the seven-week semester – in preparation for the entrance exam.

She is, in a word, serious.

She believes there is a need for a rabbi like her –a Jew of color, deeply committed to social justice, a supporter of Palestine.

I have no doubt.

But under that, I have another thought.

That I am white. Not terribly political. Older.(Old enough to be her mother.)

Faith does not come easily to me. I am a practitioner of what works. There is a mezuzah in my doorway, a batik of Ganesh on my wall, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous on my shelf.

I gather stray Jews and others for holidays. And say “thank you” when a guest brings a dairy dish and I have cooked meat.

Two of my great loves were not Jews. And when one ended in divorce, I found it necessary to have a Jewish dissolution of marriage, as well as a civil one.

I am doubtful and uncertain. Even now as I write this. Yet I keep returning to it, to this place of Jewishness again and again.

And that, perhaps, there is a need for a rabbi like me.

 

Artist Date 73: Navel Gazing

navelNavel gazing.

It is the story of my life.  Or perhaps it is just my fear.  That seemingly subtle line between interested self-awareness and narcissistic self-centeredness.

I begin blogging in 2012.  Dubious.  Wondering what, if anything, I have to say.  And who, besides myself and perhaps a few kind-hearted friends, would care.

The questions become irrelevant as life becomes more Technicolor than I am used to.  I have no choice.  I have to write.

About Rwanda.  My birth-mother’s death. Divorce.  Romance.  Healing.

The unexpected gift of my return to writing following a 15-year absence – what spurs me on in my early, tentative efforts and continues to spur me on today – is the return voices of others.  The sense of connection, and its immediacy, is a balm.

I feel seen.  Heard.  Supported.  And even, dare I say, useful.  It seems the words I give to my name my experiences are words others have struggled to find.

In time, I find the writing itself is healing.  That I am healing myself.

And yet I sometimes still wonder what, if anything, I have to say.

On occasion those closest to me take exception to my writing and I have to consider if what I have written is hurtful or dishonest.  If I have compromised their anonymity.  Their right to privacy.

And, when blog posts garner little response, I question if what I have to say is still relevant.  Interesting.  Of value.

Self-doubt.  It is the devil of all creatives.  Likely all people.  But for those whose very lifeblood is the exercise of expression through words or clay or paint or charcoal.  Violin, ballet or film.  It can kill – the art.  The process.  The artist.  Either metaphorically or literally.

Sunday – Artist Date 73 – is that kind of killer.

you feel so mortalI am invited to Megan’s house for a salon.  (Think 1920s Paris, the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.)  Her friend, Peggy Shinner will be reading from her recently published book of essays on the body, “You Feel So Mortal.”

Megan thinks I will enjoy the afternoon, both as a writer and a bodyworker.  And, she thinks I should perhaps meet Peggy.

Approaching Megan’s door I hear piano music blending with animated chit-chat.  Inside there is a table covered in finger foods.  Slices of grainy-European bread topped with slices of egg and watercress.  Cheeses, jams and chutneys.  Chocolate-covered fruit.  Elegantly-penned signs in front of each platter, describing its offering.

I make a cup of green tea and easy conversation with the handful of women I know.

Megan introduces Peggy and me, highlighting our shared status as writers and Jewish women.  She asks me about my writing.  I trip over myself, talking about my blog – life after divorce, not dating, Artist Dates, healing.  My proverbial elevator pitch in desperate need of revision, or at the very least practice.

I tell her I believe it might be a book.  She smiles.

Later, Megan summons us upstairs, inviting us to find a seat from a row of chairs.  Peggy comes to the front of the room, opens her book and begins to read.

“I have Jewish feet,” she reads, continuing on about her father’s and how they are the same.  Then digging deeper, she reads about Jewish genetics, especially as applied to feet.  And how it was used against her people, my people, in Nazi Germany.

Her story is bigger than just her feet.  Just her family.

I feel small.  Self-important.  Silly.  Why don’t I include research in my writing?  Facts.  Or history — like she does in another essay about her mother and her relation to Nathan Leopold, who with Richard Loeb, sought to commit the perfect crime.

In a Q and A session following the reading, Peggy specifically mentions her desire to reach beyond her own story.  To have a greater context.

I don’t buy Peggy’s book.  I say goodbye from a distance, a wave, mouthing the words “Thank you.”  I am in some sort of self-imposed shame spiral.

I come home and finish reading, “Seducing the Demon,” by Erica Jong.  I have forgotten how smart, sassy and irreverent she is.  Her casual use of “fuck” and “cunt.”  She is my hero.

The book includes an essay that Jong read on “All Things Considered” in 2006.  “On Being a Car Wreck” – a response to unfavorable reviews of this book.

“So, instead of seeing the review as a personal vendetta or sexist attack, I’m living with the fact that the critic simply thought my book sucked.  So how can I write a better one?

“…Become less self-centered…How do I get over myself?…I’ve always wanted to improve and evolve as a writer…I’ve finally, at age sixty-four, gotten to the point where I realized that there are lives and characters more interesting than mine…”

She was sixty-four.  I am just forty-four.  Plenty of time.